As U.S. and Western forces gear up to depart from Afghanistan, the country’s more than 40-year war enters its next phase. This is nothing new for the Afghan people. In the course of a century, they have seen British and Soviet conquerors exit, leaving various would-be kings, power brokers and warlords to fill the vacuum. Through it all, it has been the Afghan people who suffer. Even through continued occupation, America can’t save them. Over the past 20 years the U.S.’ presence has empowered warlords, enabled political corruption and fueled Taliban-led resistance—actually setting the stage for the war’s tragic encore.
As it stands, the Kabul government and its security forces are crumbling due to motivational mismatch—not a withdrawal of American soldiers. Afghan soldiers and police primarily fight for pay, while the Taliban claim to fight for national liberation, and the warlords’ militiamen purportedly defend their ethnic enclaves. Facing an uncertain future, coupled with the collapsing and kleptocratic Kabul government’s inability to consistently pay its troops, some Afghan army units are simply evaporating. Meanwhile, the Taliban seemingly rise like water from the ground rather than one large and powerful wave.
The U.S.-constructed Afghan house of cards is finally facing its inevitable collapse. As this next phase of Afghanistan’s tragedy begins, there’s a visible percolation of deals between the Taliban and various warlords to control the region even as our troops roam the streets. Afghans are telling me that leaders like Rashid Dostum, Salahuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Karim Khalili—warlords often aligned with Washington for the last two decades—are now negotiating with the Taliban. These men have managed to maintain power inside their ethnic enclaves and communities for over 30 years while America raged a war on their soil. Many are also accused war criminals and chief drug lords. These paramilitary powerbrokers have deep ties to the CIA—some dating back to the 1980s anti-Soviet insurgency. And as the warlords maneuver to hold control, so too will U.S. powers, effectively keeping an eye and occupation in the region. This leaves President Ashraf Ghani’s government on the outside looking in, as warlords and the Taliban divide Afghanistan’s political and military spoils and the U.S. continues to conspire with or without troops.
It is worth remembering the Taliban’s last rise to power in the 1990s to understand what may happen soon. I have often asked Afghans how the Taliban took control so quickly and seemingly efficiently 25 years ago. Their replies were usually singular: the Pakistani rupee. While they did fight and win militarily, the Taliban just as frequently bought out their adversaries and purchased local loyalty. In fact, the Taliban still receive some support from Pakistan. Islamabad prefers stability in its neighbor through the dissemination of power. Such a policy shift reflects the blowback cost to Pakistan in its decades-long desire to control Afghanistan: boomeranging violence, homegrown terror groups, millions of refugees, plus narcotics trafficking and addiction. The same goes for Iranian, Russian and Chinese machinations in Afghanistan.
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